In this post I’m looking at decoration on the most basic of day boats, the ‘open’ wooden or ‘open’ iron boat.

‘Bessie’ an open iron day boat, seen here at the Black Country Museum undergoing a paint job, and showing the most common BCN colour scheme of ‘bright’ red and ‘grass’ green, and the crescents finshing off the colour ground.

Open Boat Decoration

The conventions dictating a ‘open’ day boat’s colour scheme would have been fairly standard throughout, with the paint scheme used to 1). identify the boat and 2). protect the hull from the elements. The boat’s painted decoration therefore having a totally utilitarian rather than aesthetic function.

The exterior of the hull would have been painted in whatever oil-based paint or pitch the yard had at hand, it’s function simply to protect the wood or metal and to ensure that the life of the boat was sufficient to make a return on the company’s investment.

In addition some companies who owned wooden boats might use red oxide, or what was called common blue to paint the vertical sheering in the hold. Common blue was created by dissolving early ‘blue-whitener’ washing tablets such as Reckitt’s Blue into white lead paint. On wooden boats, where the sheering wasn’t painted, often the lining board or top inner plank that ran horizontally beneath the gunnels was painted in red oxide. Cross timbers or stretchers tended to be left unpainted.

A recent re-enactment of a tug hauling a train of day boats. Bernard Hales Partnership’s day boat No. 2 in the foreground.

Given that both wooden and iron ‘open’ day boats had no foredeck, and no top cloths (with their associated equipment of masts, stands and planks) all other decoration, used to help a steerer identify an individual boat, was confined to the top bends or top planks at the bow and stern, often described as the fore end and the shoulders of the boat.

Fore end and shoulder designs were commonly painted onto bright red panels utilising the whole width of the top plank/top bend with a symbol or writing placed in the middle of the colour block. The colour panel would often be finished off with yellow or white crescents, with the convex side facing to the front (in the case of the fore end) or the back (in the case of the shoulders) of the boat.

Stewarts & Lloyds’ Coombeswood site, day boat No.108 being poled into place to received a shipment of tubes for internal transit around the site..

The vast majority of companies plying their trade on the BCN would have a design, a symbol for their company if you like, made up from a combination of 2-D shapes such as circles, crescents and diamonds, sometimes quartered in contrasting colours.

Simplicity, impact and ease of recognition were the bye-word, with the most common design (used by a number of companies including Stewart & Lloyds and the Wilfruna Coal Company) being variations on the theme of a single white diamond painted on a red ground.

Simple shapes, on a plain coloured ground, seen on the fore end of a day boat.

Use was also made of company trademarks and trade symbols to create, in effect, a visual coded message for steerers who, often unable to read, would use the symbols to speedily, and with some certainty, identify which boat belonged to which company.

Stewarts & Lloyds used a variety of methods, initial, words and symbols to identify their fleet of day boats…

The symbolic designs, taken alongside the boat’s BCN gauging number, and any name or number provided by the company, allowed individual boats to be identified.

The shoulders tended to carry the boat’s own name or number, put on a similarly coloured panel to that found on the fore end. The lettering would most often be white or cream with shading in a strongly contrasting colour or two-tone colour.

Next time we’ll take a look at how the sides of cabin boats were used to help identify boats.


5 thoughts on “Day Boat Decoration 2: Decoration on ‘open’ boats

  1. Nick – can you identify a day boats ownership from its number? I am looking at the fore end of an old day boat to marry onto a repro back end to form a short butty for the jam business. Early days yet but a bit of history will be nice.


  2. Hi Capt.

    It all depends which number you have, by far the most useful would be the BCN number, as gauging registers would then give you lots of information, original owners, date of registration etc.

    I found out lots of background on Eileen from asking questions on the CWF site. Pete Harrison, who’s database includes I think 4x versions of the BCN registers, was really helpful.

    Long shot I know but does the section of boat you have your eye on still have the BCN gauging plates attached or come with any historical provenence at all?

    Without the BCN number it’s likely to become a little more of a needle in a haystack job, sifting back through previous owners etc. to find one that knew the boat say before it was cut down, and perhaps knew the BCN number…

    Best wishes



  3. This is really interesting and informative. It is curious to know that boat decoration doesn’t have a merely aesthetic function, but also is vital for its upkeep.


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